Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Bedtime for Howie


One thing having a black cat has taught me is that black cats can be hard to photograph. Unless you catch them from the right angle in the right light (as in last week’s example), they can easily turn into silhouettes with eyes. That’s sorta happening in this picture. His right ear is missing from the shot, blending almost entirely into his head. Fortunately he was reclining on a pillow, so the shadow creates an ear that would otherwise be invisible.

I blogged this photo at least in part as a reminder that photography doesn’t have to be all about expensive cameras and fancy lenses. Nor does it have to be about portfolio-worthy masterpieces. The technical quality here isn’t great. But I love the moment it records.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Eight things we love about photography – Ease

In his song “Some Kinda Love,” Lou Reed observes “Between thought and expression lies a lifetime.” Anyone who has ever tried to write anything more profound than “brb lol” knows exactly what he means. Careful expression of thought in words requires considerable practice, vision and revision. Just writing this brief blog post took the better part of an hour, and I’ve been practicing this for decades.

Most visual arts involve similar levels of commitment. A painting begins with sketches followed by hours of skilled application of paint to canvas. Not to mention the hours and days and weeks and months and years of classes and practice that bring you to the moment you apply the first stroke.

In photography, the distance between thought and expression is usually a fraction of a second. Post-production adjustments notwithstanding, a photo is created complete and entire the moment you press the shutter button. Using a camera doesn’t require extensive training. It requires a finger.

That’s not to say that someone new to the art can master it in an instant. Even in an age in which our tools are capable of doing a lot of thinking for us, good photographic communication requires an understanding of composition, camera mechanics and visual storytelling. However, no matter how much lining up and fiddling each shot requires, the ultimate act of creation requires no motor skills at all.

And that means anyone who can see can take a picture. The downside of such easy access is the average of more than 200,000 photos posted every minute of every day to Facebook alone, the vast majority of which are crap by professional standards. The upside is that so many people are now at least trying to express themselves visually. That’s either a democracy or an anarchy of art, depending on your point of view.

Because the creative act can be accomplished in such short order, it expands the realm of art. A young cat reclining in a shaft of sunlight might not be momentous enough to drop everything and spend hours creating a sculpture or oil painting, but he’s worth the minute required to grab a camera and press a button.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Nikon D7000, 10.5mm, 1/30, f/2.8, ISO 1600, edited

Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved the room in the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art where a statue of Guanyin is displayed. She sits in a temple-like gallery with a giant mural of Nirvana behind her. The atmosphere is delightfully quiet and contemplative.

It’s also a pain to photograph. The uneven lighting that makes the room so nice also makes it difficult to get a good exposure. Thus I needed to employ a little post-production trickery.

Nikon D7000, 10.5mm, 1/30, f/2.8, ISO 1600

I walked away with a good exposure of the statue, but the background looked pale and discolored. After a try or two, I found that I couldn’t bring out the deeper greens on the wall without trashing the subtle reds on the statue.

Enter the mask. I divided the image into two layers (one for the statue and one for the rest of the photo). By masking off everything but the statue on the topmost layer, I was able to leave it unedited while adjusting the wall behind it. Slight changes to the levels and color balance got me the look I remembered.

I briefly considered taking the reds in the carpet down a bit so they wouldn’t distract from the art. But upon further reflection I decided I kinda liked what they did to the visual flow of the piece.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Devil rat

Nikon D7000, 50mm, 1/60, f/1.8, ISO 1250

Okay, actually this is neither a devil nor a rat. It’s some sort of ferret or weasel that was converted into a tobacco pouch. And then later it became a museum exhibit.

The first time I tried photographing it, the picture looked terrible. I had to crank the ISO up so high that it turned into a festival of grainy crap. And it was still too dark.

Nikon D3000, 42mm (18-55), 1/60, f/5.6, ISO 3200

So when I tried it again recently, I used a “faster” lens (a 50mm prime that allowed for a wider f-stop). The trade-off was field depth, the narrowness of which you can clearly see in the photo. But without recourse to a tripod (not permitted in the Nelson art museum), this is the best I could hope for.